The Sea and Sage Audubon chapter winter pelagic trip ran recently on a February day following strong winds and storms from the southwest. A fairly large swell kept people on their toes for most of the day (going airborne while on a boat is bad!!). It was by turns rainy, windy, drizzly and sunny. For those who braved the weather, however, the returns from this trip were spectacular! Every pelagic trip begins with a sense of hope: maybe you’ll see something rare, like an albatross. But realistically, you never really expect one to show up. As it turned out, they weren’t long in coming, and in this case it was an unprecedented one.
A Laysan Albatross soars past the boat at close quarters.
The boat left Dana Point harbor and headed straight out into the California Channel. Four miles out, a call of “Albatross!” went up from the back of the boat. The usual stampede ensued! The bird in question, a spectacular adult Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis, provided a first record for Orange County. This particular individual was a handsome adult bird. The distinctive dark wings and all-white body, nape and crown are distinctive. And the grayish shadow to the auricular and large pinkish bill with a pale bluish tip seal the deal. The bird made several passes by the boat, found nothing that interested it, and sailed off, leaving us all wishing for more. Alas, it was not to be as we never saw this bird again during the entire trip. But it sure woke everyone up! Continue reading →
The brackish and salt marshes of California are an important and globally-threatened ecosystem. At this point, a century of “civilization” has filled, polluted or destroyed over 95% of California’s coastal salt marshes. These estuaries and marshes are incredibly important. Biologically speaking, they are some of the most productive acres of habitat anywhere. They host tremendous species diversity, and act as vital nursery grounds for many ocean species. They serve as feeding and breeding resources for a variety of species. Endangered species like the California Least Tern, Western Snowy Plover and Light-footed Ridgway’s Rail all use coastal saltmarshes. They also provide wintering or year-round habitat for a number of interesting bird species. The focus of this article is three such species: Belding’s (Savannah) Sparrow, Large-billed Savannah Sparrow and Nelson’s Sparrows. Continue reading →
This Black-capped Chickadee was a regular visitor to the yard of the guest house where we were staying.
Seven chickadee species regularly occur in North America: Carolina, Black-capped, Boreal, Mountain, Chestnut-backed, Mexican and Gray-headed Chickadee. Chickadees form a closely-related group, all belonging to the same genus (Poecile). Chickadees are members of the family Paridae, which also includes the titmice. European birders call chickadees “tits”, and tits include some of the largest and most colorful members of the family.
Chickadees are small birds with big personalities. Chickadees get their name from their songs, which sound as though they are saying “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, or variations on that theme. They are small birds (the largest are just 5.5 inches long) with proportionately large, round heads, variable amounts of white in prominent cheek patches, and always a black throat. All of our chickadees have short, sharp bills well-adapted for hammering open seeds or grabbing bugs out of crevices. Chickadees are gregarious, flocking birds except when nesting and fledging young each year. Then the flocks break apart and birds set up breeding territories. Chickadees frequently visit bird feeders across the continent, making them some of North America’s best known and most beloved birds. Continue reading →
A sub-adult Black Skimmer close-up over a pond at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California
The Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) is a wonderful weird bird that breeds across the southern half of North America. Black Skimmers live and forage almost exclusively at coastal locations or within about 20 miles of the shore. They are primarily year-round residents here, though some winter as far south as the Yucatan. A large population of Black Skimmers resides year-round in a range roughly corresponding to the entire Amazon drainage basin.
Black Skimmers are easily recognizable by their bizarre asymmetric bill, longer below than above. Black Skimmers have clean white underparts, throat, neck collar (non-breeding only) and around the bill. Their feet and the inner bills are bright orange; the tips of both mandibles are black. Juvenile Black Skimmers are more brownish-gray on the upper surface, and have relatively dull orange feet and inner bill parts. At birth, juvenile skimmers mandibles are of equal length. But by the time they fledge four weeks later, the lower mandible is a centimeter longer than the upper one. Continue reading →
Elegant Terns galore! In late spring and early summer, one of the birding spectacles in Southern California is the colony of terns at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, Orange County. The pretty estuary (as its name translates from Spanish) has been host to twelve species of terns, with Common, Royal, Caspian, Gull-billed, Black, breeding Black Skimmer, Forster’s, Least, and Elegant, and rarities Sooty, Sandwich, and Bridled. Continue reading →
A Horned Puffin getting airborne, Kachemak Bay, Alaska
All three species of puffin, Atlantic, Horned and Tufted, are native to the northern hemisphere. Currently, all puffins belong to the genus Fratercula, which is Latin for “little brother”. Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) was once included in the same genus as the puffins. Puffins are alcids – truly pelagic seabirds that feed by diving from the ocean surface and capturing small fish and zooplankton.
Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) breed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in large colonies. Tufted (Fratercula cirrhata) and Horned Puffins (Fratercula corniculata) are unique to the northern Pacific Ocean on both sides of the Bering Strait. This article focuses on the Horned and Tufted Puffins, it discusses Atlantic Puffins as well. Continue reading →
When summer hits the doldrums set in after the migrants have flown north. Many of us then chase butterflies and odonata (dragonflies and damselflies, or “odes”). Odes are particularly fun because they make such great photography subjects with their wild colors, spiky appendages and weird shapes. Even the names are awesome! The only bird names that can even compete are mostly hummingbirds…
Recent reports of some first county record dragonflies in San Bernardino County took us up to Deep Creek. The United States Forest Service administers to this unit of the San Bernardino National Forest. Tom Benson discovered Bison Snaketails and Western River Cruisers on this relatively pristine creek in the San Bernardino Mountains. Tulare County previously had the southern-most records of Bison Snaketail. This find significantly extends the known range of that species. Likewise, the southern-most known range of Western River Cruiser was up in Kern and Inyo counties. These two species belong to the clubtail family. Clubtails have oddly bulging tail segments and brilliant colors, making them some of the weirdest-looking dragonflies in California. Continue reading →
Eastern Screech-Owl is about the same size as an European Starling (same length and 2/3 the weight)
Southern Florida and the Everglades is home to five different species of owls. We decided to take a trip to Sothern Florida and search for the owls in the Everglades and upper Keys. North America has twenty species of owls. The Eastern Screech-Owl is the only owl species that is resident only east of the Rockies. It would be the primary owl of our searches. Barred Owl, rare in the west, would be our second target. With a new upcoming release of our sister Owling.com website, Optics4Birding sent me off to the east coast to document the owls in the Everglades. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it! Continue reading →
♫ and a partridge in a pear tree ♪ … oops no pear trees.
I took a very brief trip (5 days) to see the winter birds of Calgary Canada. I did this at the end of January and beginning of February. My primary reason for traveling to this area was to look for Snowy and Hawk Owls. In the continental United States these two owls are not very common. Small numbers usually do show up though most years in the northern states. Hawk Owl would be the most uncommon of these two species. Along with the owls, the mammals and winter birding this far north promised to offer other interesting species. These would include several that I would not find in Southern California. There would also be some that may not be very common in the lower 48 states at all.
The Grey Partridges are a pleasure to find. There were several coveys in the area. These were new to me. They are fairly common this far north although I had never seen one. I have been singing 🎼 “and a partridge in a pear tree” ♫ every Christmas since I was a kid. It was a pleasure to actually have a picture in my mind of what they look like. Seeing them in action was a pleasure. They seemed quite similar to our quail being in groups running around on the ground (missed any in pear trees!). I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to bring a pair of Zeiss Victory SF 10×42 Binoculars with me for review. For now, all I will say is “WOW, The views through these binoculars are incredible”. Continue reading →
Kowa America recently released the TSN-EX16 Extender. The extender is placed between the body of a Kowa TSN-880 or TSN-770 spotting scope body and the eyepiece and multiplies the standard magnification by 1.6x. This is analogous to photographic lens extenders that mount between a camera’s lens and body. With the current 25-60x zoom eyepiece (Kowa TE-11WZ) that fits these spotting scopes, the resultant magnification becomes 40-96x!
But what about the historical downsides of extenders? How does the optical quality hold up? Is there much loss of light? What about sharpness and clarity? I took out my trusty TSN-884 and Panasonic Lumix G6 to find out. An accommodating Peregrine Falcon stayed long enough for me to get some test shots. Continue reading →